Sturgill Simpson’s Sound and Fury: making art, not friends

One of my favourite albums of the past few years was recorded by a country artist. I know.

This will probably only surprise you if you knew me and my musical tastes. Country music always felt both geographically and culturally distant to me: although it shares the same blues and folk roots as most contemporary rock and pop, I’ve never felt much of a personal connection to it. In fairness, Sound and Fury doesn’t really sound like a contemporary country record: it’s heavy, psychedelic and more like the Black Keys and similar songs that I listen to at home than the popular bro-country stereotype of some band from Nashville singing about sexism, pickup trucks and beer.

This album encouraged me to go see Simpson play live, buy his earlier records, check out documentaries about the history of the genre, and start paying attention to artists who inspired him such as Jason Isbell, Waylon Jennings and John Prine. Unfortunately, thanks to his uncompromising approach, even after returning to his roots with two Cuttin’ Grass compilations and The Ballad of Dood and Juanita some corners of the country music industry don’t care for him much these days.

As its name implies, Sound and Fury is a noisy and angry record. Listening to his earlier songs from his solo debut High Top Mountain, it’s easy to see why critics were confused and even outraged: Simpson and his band deliberately chose to make, in their own words, “a sleazy rock record” with only faint remnants of country twang. The lyrics too are filled with disillusionment and harsh criticism of the music industry and everything it stands for; you might think he’s giving the finger to some of the very people who helped him to be successful, and you’d probably be right.

There’s a distinctly David Gilmour-esque vibe to the guitar work in Ronin and All Said and Done, and the Pink Floyd parallels in this album are I think no accident: Simpson was struggling with the old rock cliché of trying to maintain artistic integrity when faced with commercial success, so found himself at an impasse after the mainstream attention he received following the release of his third solo album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Although he was raised on traditional bluegrass from his native Kentucky and looks to the likes of Prine and Jennings for inspiration, his tastes are more varied; as some covers of songs by Nirvana (In Bloom, from Sailor’s…) and When in Rome (The Promise, on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music) will attest. What initially started as some sort of “outlaw country” take on The Wall became something less sprawling, but every bit as paranoid, risky and…animated.

I ought to add that the noisy guitars, throbbing synthesizers and distorted drums accompanying sardonic lyrics about how the music industry is awful only served to endear them to me, and at this point Simpson is the sort of person who I’m glad to have seen play live but would also happily sit down and have a beer with if given the chance. Both musically and lyrically it’s clever, solid stuff; even when he’s clearly pissed off and worried about what direction his career should take, you can’t help but admire his will to experiment and talent to do so successfully.

As an album, Sound and Fury is a fascinating piece of work, but after finishing the songs and deciding the finished product still “wasn’t weird enough” Simpson decided to contact Junpei Mizusaki and get some Japanese animation studios to produce a music video. For the entire album.

There have been a number of striking crossover productions created by Japanese anime studios and foreign collaborators of course, and animated music videos are nothing new either: just look at The Animatrix, the first half of Kill Bill and Interstellar 5555’s use of Daft Punk. The thematic parallels with The Wall come back again, this time with a Japanese post-apocalyptic samurai story rather than the pencil-drawn newspaper cartoon style of British satirist Gerald Scarfe.

Viewers who appreciate the grittier, more mature and experimental fare of Studio 4°C will recognise the influences of Michael Arias and Koji Morimoto here: it’s more in the tradition of the action flicks from the OAV heyday of the 80s and 90s, along with the smoothness of motion that came with 21st century CGI.

In terms of storytelling, transposing the themes of the songs into a completely new setting with its own fictional worldview is interesting to watch and must have involved some fun challenges to create, but there are inevitable compromises and limitations. When these themes overlap it’s joyous to behold; when they don’t it’s chaotic and disjointed.

A conscious effort was made to tell a story (which, interestingly, is expanded on in an upcoming comic book spin-off that at the time of writing I’ve not yet read) rather than just provide cool-looking music videos, but at times it really is just an anthology of cool-looking music videos. Which may or may not be able to maintain the viewer’s patience during forty or so minutes of dialogue-free footage.

I assume that Simpson did all this to feel energised by working with talented mavericks who were completely distanced from the life he knew (although he was posted to Japan while serving in the US navy as a youth, and during the recording of Sound and Fury he and his band watched samurai flicks during studio breaks). On the other hand, it offered another opportunity to troll the record label execs by investing in an expensive, time-consuming endeavour that would offer little financial return and instead be consigned to Netflix in our digital, post-MTV era. Either way, it gives the rest of us a vibrant, refreshingly different multimedia experiment.

At one point recently, Simpson posted a typically self-depreciating photo onto his sporadically-updated Instagram page that showed a man brandishing a placard that read “I got hillbillies to watch anime.” By the same token, he’s also managed to get anime geeks listening to country.

Sound and Fury is currently available to view on Netflix

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